Driving around today, my brain wandered — like it does — and this time it wandered onto the topic of time elapsing in fiction.
Twenty-seven years go by between the beginning and ending of In Ashes Lie. I noticed, while working on that book, how few models I had for stories like that: even on a series level, genre fiction tends toward plots that zoom by much more quickly. It’s a function of the type of stories we tell; lit-fic may explore one person’s growth over their lifetime, the gradual change of their relationship with a family member or whatever, but fantasy and SF usually feature a more immediate conflict, one which must be resolved soon or the consequences will be dire.
I think one of the things that endears Mercedes Lackey’s Last Herald-Mage trilogy to me, unexpectedly, is the way it breaks that model. Sure, in the first book Vanyel is an angsty teenager with incredible power — you could so turn that into an anime without half-trying — but when he shows up in the second installment, it’s twelve years later and he’s an actual adult. One with responsibilities and experience, who’s grown into his power and discovered what problems it can’t solve for him. I don’t know what the causal order was, whether the time-lapse created the Stefan plot or the Stefan plot required the time-lapse, but I honestly think the passage of those years is what redeems the series from being purely standard-issue crackfic. The changes with Jervis and Withen always struck me as particularly satisfying, and I think it’s because they aren’t sudden conversions. The moment of transformation may be sudden, but it’s years in the making, as both characters see what kind of man Vanyel has grown up to be, and weigh that against the prejudices they began with. Likewise, I much more readily buy Vanyel as the legendary Herald-Mage half the Collegium’s afraid of, because half the Collegium’s too young to remember his days as a snot-nosed brat. It’s harder to make that kind of role pay off believably in the short term.
But the tradeoff, of course, is that you lose the sense of conflict immediacy if you have years flying by. Also, you can (paradoxically) get away with either an essentially static character, or one who suddenly undergoes a major change of heart, if only a month or two elapses within the story. If a decade passes, on the other hand, you have to find ways to show the effect of that on your protagonist and those around her, and those effects will be both small and gradual-large. It’s all the challenge of writing an adult with a real history behind him, plus the challenge of showing that history in progress.
So who are some authors that do this, and do it well? I don’t mean stories like the Wheel of Time, where maybe a year or two has gone by but it’s all continuous plot; I’m looking for books or series that leap over intervening spans to show you a real percentage of a character’s life. Fantasy and science fiction books, specifically — I know lit-fic does this a lot, but it just doesn’t hold my interest.